The head of school of the Galloway School is using a comparison to unisex restrooms to defend the private school’s use of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” as a summer reading option for its students this year.
“Reading Mein Kampf isn’t for every community, just as gender inclusive restrooms aren’t culturally appropriate everywhere,” Suzanna Jemsby wrote in a blog post on the school’s website Sunday, Aug. 20, after explaining that just as Galloway adopted unisex bathrooms after students requested them three years ago, so the school added Hitler’s rambling, anti-Semitic screed to the reading list at the request of students, most of them Jewish, in May.
“Perhaps most of all I appreciate how difficult it is to prove to those outside of our community that the decision not to ban this book (or others) was the right decision,” Jemsby concluded.
In that blog post and in an interview with the AJT, Jemsby, a linguist from Cambridge, said that letting 10 students read something as challenging as “Mein Kampf” has gone well.
Usually each summer selection has a one-off discussion when the school year starts, but because of the context of “Mein Kampf,” the discussion has gone on much longer and included the Anti-Defamation League and the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust.
Jemsby said Galloway plans to have several more discussions and has held staff-only conversations about the book, which the school emphasized that no student was forced to read.
While Galloway leaders portrayed the involvement of the ADL and Holocaust Commission as cooperation in teaching the book, those organizations presented the situation as damage control in a statement they issued Aug. 24.
They said they provided a lesson to disabuse students of the idea that just Hitler caused the Holocaust, and they worked to present a balanced, age-appropriate, contextualized perspective. They also have offered to bring in a Holocaust survivor to speak to a wider student population.
Neither organization thinks that “Mein Kampf” should be a summer reading option for students.
“We believe that the choice of Mein Kampf was made without an awareness of the academic and pedagogical guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust,” the ADL and Holocaust Commission wrote to the school. “The students’ question, ‘How and why did the Holocaust happen?’ is not answered by a reading of Adolf Hitler’s political and racial manifesto. Understanding the Holocaust is far more complex, requiring examination of the many motives that drove the choices of individuals, organizations and governments, which ultimately led to genocide.”
About 35 percent of Galloway students are Jewish, as are about a third of faculty members, school communications director Sherri Breunig wrote to Israellycool.com, the pro-Israel blog that broke the news about “Mein Kampf.”
The Algemeiner, a Jewish news website, criticized Galloway’s use of the Michael Ford translation of Hitler’s autobiography. The Ford translation is promoted by hitler-library.org, a pro-Hitler website, and the publisher’s notes originally posted on Galloway’s library resource site present the Ford version as presenting “a very interesting and moving story.”
The Ford translation uses more colloquial English, supposedly easier for teens to follow, and Jemsby wrote in her blog post that the high-schoolers “had extraordinary insights and exceptional questions” after reading the book.
“We are aware of the controversy” about the translation, the head of school told the AJT. She said that in forthcoming discussions, students will look at other translations for comparison.
Gordon Mathis, the school’s head of community engagement and a German speaker, will speak to the students and comb through the different texts.
“Knowing Gordon, it will be a very intellectual conversation,” Jemsby said.
The ADL and Holocaust Commission said they plan to continue their relationship with Galloway’s students, faculty and administration.
“The missions of both the Anti-Defamation League and the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust include the charge to educate our students to recognize and confront threats to human rights, including hatred, antisemitism, racism and prejudice,” they said in their joint statement.